Memoirs and Services of Three Generations


The following extracts from an article by Hon. John S. Wise in the Saturday Evening Post of June 2, 1906, gives informatian concerning Henry Clay's connection with the affair of Cilley and Graves, which, though alleged, has never until this account been fully proved. Only that part of the article is given which relates to Jonathan Cilley:

The most serious of my father's experiences in dueling was that in the famous Cilley and Graves duel, into which he was dragged, against his will, to act as second for a man he knew but slightly and for whom he really cared nothing.

The Honorable Jonathan Cilley, a gallant, impetuous, high-tempered man, entered Congress from Maine with the oft-avowed feeling that the members of Congress from the North allowed the Southern members to hector and lord it over them too freely-that they ought to respond to such attacks in kind, and that, when they had done so a few times, such arrogance would cease.

The following account of my father's connection with the affair is copied from an original manuscript drawn up by him and, as late as 1875, submitted to and approved by his lifelong friend, the Honorable George W. Jones, of Iowa, who was Mr. Cilley's second. It is valuable because it has never before been published, and is instructive because it shows some of the points of finesse in the science of dueling. It is not published in full because of sundry strictures upon James Watson Webb, which only tend to revive bitterness:

"According to my recollection I was not at Washington, but at home in Accomac, Virginia, when the speech of Cilley was made and published. I returned to Washington after the time when Webb engaged Mr. Graves' services as a second and put the challenge into Graves' hands, and he, Graves, had delivered it. At no time did I ever confer with Webb about the matter, either alone or with Mr. Graves or others. He knew nothing of my advice or counsel to Mr. Graves.

"But whether I had returned to Washington or not, I positively aver that the challenge was delivered to Graves and by him delivered to Cilley, without any knowledge or information of the fact on my part. It was only after the challenge was tendered that I was informed by Mr. Graves or any one else of its existence. I learned from Mr. Graves himself, who sought my counsel, all I ever knew, or was informed of before the fight, of what occurred between him, and Mr. Cilley on the presentation of the challenge. Mr. Graves' statement to me was in brief and in substance as follows: He said, as soon as he obtained a private interview with Mr. Cilley, he announced the object of his visit. He (Mr. Cilley) showed no surprise and seemed to be prepared for the call. He immediately declined to accept the challenge, on the sole ground that he would not admit his responsibility for words spoken by him in debate in the House. Mr. Graves asked him to say whether he declined on the ground that his principal, James Watson Webb, was not a gentleman. Mr. Cilley replied that he would not affirm or disclaim any reason other than that he was not responsible for words spoken by him in debate in the House. Mr. Graves then inquired whether that was his only ground of declining. Mr. Cilley replied that the only ground he chose to stand upon was his irresponsibility to an editor for words spoken in debate in the House. Mr. Graves asked him whether that meant to disclaim any other ground. Mr. Cilley repeated that he meant not to affirm or disclaim any other ground.

"Mr. Graves informed me that, upon this, he reported to his principal that Mr. Cilley did not put his refusal to accept on the ground that James Watson Webb was not a gentleman but upon the sole ground stated. My advice to him was that the reason expressed was sufficient, but some one else advised (whom am not and never was informed) that he ought to require Mr. Cilley to put his reason for declining in writing. I told him that was regular and proper, but advised him to the preferable course to report his own statement and submit it to Mr. Cilley for affirmance or contradiction: that as Mr. Cilley put his declining on the ground solely of irresponsibility, he was justified in saying that he did not put it on the ground of Webb's character or any other ground, and that he had no right to demand of him a disclaimer of any other ground. Upon this Mr. Graves drew a paper in substance, reciting his statement, and adding that, upon that, he had reported and would publish, if necessary, that Mr. Cilley had not declined on the ground that Webb was not a gentleman. What he did with that paper I am not and never was informed; but he returned it to me saying that he could not prevail on Mr. Cilley to affirm or to deny his statement, or to put his only reason assigned for declining in writing.

"I told him neither was necessary, as he had only to make and publish his statement that Mr. Cilley did not put himself on the ground that Webb was not a gentleman, and leave the latter to acquiesce in or contradict his statement. If he acquiesced in it, well; if not, it would raise an issue of veracity between him and Mr. Cilley, and I was sure that Mr. Cilley would disclaim any impeachment of his, Graves', veracity, whilst he could easily explain any reservation of his right to express any other reason but the one assigned. Mr. Graves had in fact drawn a challenge on the ground that Mr. Cilley's course impliedly, at least, impeached his veracity, but after conference with me alone he asked me to meet him at Mr. Clay's room early in the evening.

"After tea, I called with Mr. Graves on Mr. Clay, and already assembled there were Mr. Clay, Mr. John J. Crittenden and Mr. Richard Menefee. They were all consulted. Mr. Graves handed to Mr. Clay the challenge he had written. Mr. Clay said immediately that the call was not based on the true issues. Mr. Cilley had refused to disclaim personal exceptions to Webb and by the Code of Dueling Graves was bound to demand such disclaimer, or stand in the shoes of his principal. He cast aside the challenge drawn by Graves, and with his own hand and pen drew the challenge which was handed to Mr. Cilley. I immediately objected to the form drawn by Mr. Clay, for the reason that it put the call upon a punctilio which never could be and never was settled without blood; that if Mr. Graves put his call on the point of his own veracity, Mr. Cilley had but to disclaim that, and I was sure he would, and that would end Graves' interposition in the affair. Mr. Crittenden and Mr. Menefee sided with Mr. Clay. Mr. Graves immediately copied the paper written by Mr. Clay, the original of which I have kept, and Mr. Graves destroyed the form of challenge written by himself.

"I then declined to bear the note drawn by Mr. Clay for reason of my stated objection. It left no room for adjustment or explanation and the meeting would necessarily be fatal. Messrs. Clay, Crittenden and Menefee all three protested with me for declining to act as second; and I persisted until Mr. Graves with great feeling rose erect on his feet from his chair, and said: 'Mr. Wise. can you expect me to be governed by your counsel alone against that of both the Senators of my state and colleague in the House of Representatives, Mr. Menefee, after a full hearing of your objections to the ground of challenge, and after they have been overruled by older heads than your own? If you do,' he continued, with his finger pointed to me, 'I call these colleagues to remember that when you were absent from your seat in the House, and from the city of Washington, I took up your defense against an attack upon you by Mr. Cilley and was ready to stand in your place to meet any and all responsibility for you.' [Note: Nothing in the printed debate shows this alleged fact.] 'And now I here say to you that I have more confidence in your skill as second than I have in any other person; and if you will not serve me and I am brought dead or wounded from the field, I call these gentlemen to witness that I shall attribute any disaster to me to the want or absence of your skill and experience.'

"I was touched deeply by this appeal and said at once with emotion: 'Mr. Graves, if you put your request to act for you on that ground, I am left no election. I will carry the challenge.'

"I did so the next morning, and was careful to keep Mr. Clay's autograph original-and it was well I did so, as after events proved. You promptly brought the acceptance by Mr. Cilley and the terms of the duel to me at my room. I was alone, with my case of new English nine-inch dueling-pistols open, examining their order and condition. You quietly tapped at my door. I answered, 'Come in.' and I can see your honest old face now, as you entered brusquely, saying: 'Ha! You'll have no use for them.' You looked at the pistols and then handed me the acceptance and terms. I reserved any reply then, and after a little chat about the rifle as a lawful weapon and my ignorance where to procure a reliable one, you retired.

"I sought Mr. Graves and told him that I should object to the rifle. He again took me to Mr. Clay. At once Mr. Clay said: 'He is a Kentuckian and can never back from a rifle.' .

"What occurred afterward, on the field and elsewhere, our joint and several statements made immediately after the duel show. But there was one subject of reproach to you and myself, which neither could explain without damaging our principals. Mr. Graves had three seconds, Mr. Crittenden, Mr. Menefee and myself; and Mr. Cilley had two advisory seconds, Mr. Duncan and Mr. Bynum, besides yourself. Now, no step was taken by me without consultation and agreement with Messrs. Crittenden and Menefee; and I am confident that you acted with the consent and approval of Messrs. Duncan and Bynum. These four gentlemen were just as responsible for the whole conduct of the affair as you and I, yet you and I alone were ever assailed for the 'barbarous three exchanges of shots.' Now you and I know that there was really but one deliberate exchange of shots; the third time after each party, in turn-Cilley in his first shot and Graves in his second-had blundered in his fire, and they would not and could not leave the ground under the accidents which would have caused misapprehension and perhaps ridicule. . . . ."

But the Cilley-Graves duel made a tremendous storm throughout the country. Nothing was done about it officially, for dueling was countenanced, more or less, but it fas a long time before the bitterness and recrimination about the Cilley-Graves duel subsided. It was brought up against Clay in his next candidacy, and his attempts to shuffle off responsibility upon others caused a breach between him and my father, who charged him with selfishly seeking to relieve himself from the odium of a duel for which he, more than any living man, was responsible.